Not since Weekend At Bernie’s Two has there been a sequel so anticipated! The Tigers ended Oakland’s season last year with a five-game series victory in the ALDS, and now the A’s are aching to return the favor. Both teams have similar strengths. The Tigers finished second in the American League in runs scored, while the A’s finished third. The A’s finished second in team ERA, while the Tigers finished third. Strong pitching and powerful bats will rule the day once again in this five-game series.
The way these teams were built, though, is a study in stark contrast. The Tigers entered 2013 with baseball’s fifth-highest payroll, and are dishing out huge contracts to players like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Justin Verlander. The A’s, on the other hand, came into the year with baseball’s fifth-lowest payroll, and assembled their team largely through smart trades and brilliant scrap heap pick ups like Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman. The A’s highest-paid players were Chris Young and Yoenis Cespedes, who both made $8.5 million. The Tigers’ have five players who made more than that this year, led by Prince Fielder making a whopping $23 million. You could definitely cast this series as rich vs. poor, or large payroll team who is supposed to stomp its way to the playoffs vs. small payroll team that supposedly never had a chance from day one.
The Tigers have the big names stars, led by Miguel Cabrera, who just might be the best hitter in baseball. The A’s have about ten or twelve players who most casual baseball fans wouldn’t have recognized before the season started. Here is a position-by-position rundown of the upcoming series.
1B: Brandon Moss (.256/.337/.522) vs. Prince Fielder (.279/.362/.457)
Moss is a prime example of why you shouldn’t give up on a player or judge a trade after just a year or two. Moss was the Pirates’ return in the 2008 Manny Ramirez/Jason Bay trade, and when Moss failed to immediately establish himself in the big leagues, cynics wrote the trade off as just another instance of the Pirates handing off their good players to high-payroll teams. Fast forward to 2013, and Moss has bashed 51 home runs in his last 800 plate appearances after being claimed off the junk pile from Oakland. The A’s will be seeing nothing but right-handed starters in this series, so Moss will play. It’s just a question of where. He may spell Josh Reddick in right field or the banged-up Yoenis Cespedes in left, with the red hot Daric Barton possibly seeing time at first.
Fielder had a down year by his standards, posting the lowest OPS of his career. That might give Tiger fans nightmares in the long-term, as Fielder is being paid heftily (heh) until 2020. Until he implodes under the weight of his contract (or his stomach) he’s still incredibly dangerous, though, and potentially poses a major problem in Comerica Park in Games Three and Four for Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily, who struggled with the long ball at times this year.
2B: Eric Sogard (.266/.322/.364) vs. Omar Infante (.318/.345/.450)
Sogard will get the nod over Alberto Callaspo in Game One, but Callaspo will likely get a start or two depending on the matchup. Sogard got off to a poor start this season at at one point had A’s fans begging for the return of Jemile Weeks, but he righted the ship and hit .281 in the second half (both of his home runs came in July, for those keeping score). He was a very solid defensive second baseman, too, by every metric I can find, so it’s no wonder the A’s stuck it out with him.
In their ALDS matchup last year, the A’s couldn’t get Infante out. He’s one of those pesky little hitters who makes a lot of contact and, when the liners and loopers are finding the right places, will hit .300 and sock a ball out of the park when you aren’t looking. He’s a prime candidate to hit .500 or something this series and give the A’s nightmare visions of 2006 Placido Polanco.
3B: Josh Donaldson (.301/.384/.499) vs. Miguel Cabrera (.348/.442/.636)
That post-Break meltdown some skeptics predicted for Donaldson never really came. More than a few pundits warned that he’d fall off a cliff as the season progressed, as his blistering first two months were out of line with his uninspiring career line. He fell off, but only marginally, hitting .284/.376/.466 in the second half, firmly ensconcing himself as one of Oakland’s star sluggers and the top threat in the lineup.
Unfortunately, as good as Donaldson is, he can’t compare to Cabrera, who is the heavy favorite to repeat as American League MVP after a campaign that saw him post numbers that were, shockingly, even better than his Triple Crown-winning 2012 season. However, the A’s may get to face Cabrera at just the right time. A groin injury slowed him considerably in the season’s final month, and he limped into the postseason with just one home run after August. According to a report today, the injury doesn’t show any sign of going away, either. If the A’s get the Tigers’ most dangerous weapon at only half-strength, it could sway the entire series.
SS: Jed Lowrie (.290/.344/.446) vs. Jhonny Peralta (.303/358/.457)
Lowrie shocked the masses by staying healthy for the first time in his career (his 662 plates appearances were almost double his career high). The A’s got pretty much the healthy Lowrie that was advertised: good pop for the position, patient plate approach, and the ability to play second base on a whim. His 80 runs scored actually placed him second among major league shortstops in the category. With the emergence of Donaldson and Moss and the power spike by Coco Crisp, Lowrie’s year actually fell a bit under the radar, but he was one of the team’s most valuable players.
Peralta is fresh off a 50-game PED suspension and is hoping to pick up right where he left off, hitting a robust .303. It appears that his debacle of a 2012 season was simply an outlier; Peralta has eclipsed an .800 OPS in two of the last three seasons.
LF: Yoenis Cespedes (.240/.294/.442) vs. Andy Dirks (.256/.323/.363)
Cespedes is battling nagging injuries of his own and it’s up in the air how much he’d be able to play in this series (Bob Melvin did say he’ll start Game One, however). The star of the upstart 2012 A’s team, Cespedes had a down sophomore year, battling injuries and a newfound penchant to swing at everything within the vicinity of home plate. Cespedes’ OBP sank to .294 and his walk rate took a dive, likely triggering the ire of A’s brass, famous for their affinity for patient hitters. He’s dangerous still, but he hit just .223 against right-handed pitching this year, and there’s nary a lefty in sight in the Tiger rotation.
Dirks is the weak link in the Detroit lineup. His flukish .322 batting average last season earned him 484 plate appearances this year, but he didn’t do much with them. The Tigers don’t have much else going for them in left field, however, unless they want to get clever and throw Nick Castellanos into the postseason fire. CF:
Coco Crisp (.261/.335/.444) vs. Austin Jackson (.272/.337/.417)
Crisp had a season that was just…fun. He hadn’t eclipsed eleven home runs since 2005, but suddenly, out of nowhere, he mashed 22 this season, becoming an incredibly sneaky power source at the top of the A’s lineup. He probably had one of those one-year power spikes and likely won’t hit 20 again, but who cares? Crisp was a joy all season long. With the power numbers, plus his speed and excellence with the glove, it’s beyond me why he isn’t at least seeing his name mentioned in the AL MVP conversation this year.
Jackson, meanwhile, regressed considerably from his awesome 2012 season, seeing his OPS drop by more than 100 points. He’s still one of the better defensive center fielders out there, and he continued to avoid the strikeout bugaboo that plagued him in the past. It’s just that at his 2013 level, he’s simply really, really good, not an All-Star.
RF: Josh Reddick (.226/.307/.379) vs. Torii Hunter (.304/.334/.465)
Reddick’s 2013 season was pretty much a train wreck from the word go. He batted an atrocious .139 in April, then went down with an injury in May. When he came back, he just wasn’t the same player the A’s had the previous season, and even when he righted the ship a little bit in September, the power still wasn’t there. His home run output sank from 32 to 12 in one year. Yuck. Reddick may lose time in the playoff games to the Brandon Moss/Daric Barton/Seth Smith never-ending platoon, and Bob Melvin may be completely justified in preferring those guys, because Reddick was a shadow of his former self this season.
Gone are the days of the balletic center fielder leaping over walls to rob home runs. Hunter is now a corner outfielder at the tail end of his career, but he’s aged much more gracefully than many analysts expected. He doesn’t have the same power that he used to, but he’s traded it in for gains in batting average. He’s one of the more likable players in recent memory, but A’s fans will have to hate him for up to five games and hope his bat doesn’t burn them like it did back in the 2002 ALDS.
C: Derek Norris (246/.345/.409) vs. Alex Avila (.227/.317/.376)
The A’s have three options they can use at catcher, but I’m guessing they’ll roll with the hot hand for this series. Norris has been swinging a hot stick since the All-Star Break (.333/.400/.556). Granted, he did most of his damage against lefties, and the A’s won’t see a lefty starter in this series. The Tiger starters are some of the toughest in the league, so if Melvin shies away from using Norris in his weak-side split, Stephen Vogt will likely get the playing time. Vogt put up averagish numbers down the stretch after taking over for the injured John Jaso (can you imagine how good this lineup would be if Jaso hadn’t gone down to a concussion?).
Avila continued to sink further and further into the abyss after wowing everybody with his star-caliber 2011 season. Since then, he’s been mired in a malaise of strikeouts and dipping power. He’s not the player he appeared to be two years ago, that’s for sure, and he’s a flawed hitter with holes in his swing that can be easily exploited, but he’s the best the Tigers have got.
DH: Seth Smith (.253/.329/.391) vs. Victor Martinez (.301/.355/430)
Once again, Brandon Moss or Yoenis Cespedes could get time at the DH spot. Smith wasn’t particularly great this season, so it’s very plausible that Melvin will start the red-hot Daric Barton at first base, move Moss to DH, and bench Smith. At the least, he’s a very solid pinch-hitting option against a right-handed reliever.
Martinez missed all of 2012 with an injury, but he picked up right where he left off from his first season with the Tigers, hitting over .300 for the seventh time in his career. His ability to make contact and hit line drives all over the field makes him the Tigers’ most dangerous hitter behind Cabrera and Fielder. He’s also perhaps the best emergency catching option in captivity.
Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65) vs. Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90)
Sonny Gray (5-3, 2.67) vs. Justin Verlander (13-12, 3.46)
Jarrod Parker (12-8, 3.97) vs. Anibal Sanchez (14-8, 2.57)
Dan Straily (10-8, 3.96) vs. Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67)
The Tigers have arguably the best starting rotation in the American League, and it outshines even Oakland’s impressive cast of starters. Scherzer came into his own this season and is the favorite for the AL Cy Young. Justin Verlander hit some bumps in the road and dealt with reduced velocity, but…come on. He’s still Justin Verlander, the guy who completely neutralized the A’s in the playoffs last season. Sanchez had the lowest ERA of all of them and he’s the freaking third starter. Fister started Game Two of the World Series last year and is definitely no slouch. As hot as the A’s offense has been of late, they’ve got their work cut out for them against this bunch.
The A’s leader in innings and strikeouts, A.J. Griffin, won’t be on the roster in the opening round due to injury. That means that rookie sensation Sonny Gray will step in and get the Game Two start. He and Colon represent the Oakland’s best chance of matching the Tiger starters frame for frame. Parker and Straily, who will start the games in Detroit, are much shakier, and have been homer-prone this season. That could spell disaster, and that disparity between the third and fourth starters is Detroit’s major advantage this series.
The Tigers’ advantage in the rotation gets flipped on its head as soon as the game goes to the bullpen. The A’s had one of the strongest relief corps in baseball, headed by ragin’ Aussie Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, and Ryan Cook. The Tigers, meanwhile, had a closer situation in flux until Joaquin Benoit took the reins. Drew Smyly also had a good year, but after him Detroit’s best reliever was, um…line? Phil Coke and Al Alberquerque fell apart completely and I doubt Jim Leyland will trust them in big pressure spots this postseason. Rick Porcello might be effective as a reliever, but that’s just scratching. If the A’s can somehow get into the Tiger bullpen early, this’ll be a quick series.
Once again, the A’s have a nebulous, continuously roving platoon of players moving in and out of the first base, corner outfield, and DH spots. The team stands to have one of Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, or Seth Smith available off the bench in each game, and that’s a huge asset if the team needs a bomb off the bench. Chris Young, who will be benched against the Tigers’ righties, will be available if the Tigers bring in Smyly or Coke late in games against one of their lefty hitters.
The Tigers have a fairly weak bench without an impact bat that can be utilized in the late innings. That may not matter with how strong their starting lineup is but can you picture a situation where the Tigers are behind late in a game and have runners on for…Andy Dirks? Yeah, I’d want a stronger hitter off the bench, too. Matt Tuiasosopo represents the closest thing they have to a good pinch hitting option, unless they put prospect Nick Castellanos on the playoff roster.
Outlook One year after the A’s bowed out to the Tigers in the ’12 ALDS, things are a wee bit different. The A’s had the better record this year, and they rolled into the playoffs tearing up everything that moved. The Tigers, by contrast, limped into the playoffs with a wounded star and suffered the ignominy of being no-hit by a Marlins pitcher on the last day ofthe season. The A’s will get the first two games at home this year, too, and what a home field advantage it is. The Oakland Coliseum is sure to be rocking to its foundation this weekend, and the ballpark just might be the top home field edge in all of baseball. Also, the A’s won’t have the specter of having to face Verlander twice in the series. As tough as Scherzer is, he just doesn’t scare anybody in the big games like Verlander does.
The A’s got hot at just the right time, and hot teams in September tend to do very well in the playoffs (remember the Giants in 2010?). With the Tigers’ vaunted rotation, this should be a battle, but look for the A’s to get retribution for last year and pull out the series in five.